The BlackBerry movie, which opened in Waterloo Region this week, has a 95-per-cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Virtually every film critic, both professional and amateur, seems to love it.
It’s a safe bet that most of them never worked at the Waterloo-based smartphone-maker or followed the history of the company closely. That’s because the new film, directed by Matt Johnson, takes plenty of liberties with the facts.
The opening credits warn that the film is a “fictionalization inspired by real people in Waterloo.” That’s a good thing, because much of what follows should be taken with a huge grain of salt.
BlackBerry co-founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, for example, is portrayed as a shy, bumbling, socially awkward caricature who is more interested in fixing a noisy intercom than talking business when he first meets future partner Jim Balsillie.
Meanwhile, Lazaridis’ lifelong friend and co-founder Doug Fregin comes across as a wild, fun-loving nerd who wears headbands and tank tops and loudly inspires his team of programmers to work hard and have a good time. This contrasts sharply with the real Fregin who, according to most accounts, is a quiet, shy man who preferred to stay in the background while helping Lazaridis launch Research In Motion (RIM) in Waterloo in 1984.
It’s almost as if Matt Johnson, who portrays Fregin in the movie, decided to switch the personalities of the two co-founders: the fictionalized Lazaridis turned into the introverted, reticent one while the equally fictionalized Fregin becomes the inspiring, charismatic leader.
As for the startup itself, RIM in the early days is pictured as a clumsy group of fun-loving nerds who play video games and watch sci-fi movies when not hammering out code.
Amid this frathouse atmosphere, Balsillie swoops in to whip the team into shape. Portrayed by actor Glenn Howerton, the fictionalized Balsillie is a cold, ruthless tyrant with a volcanic temper who treats most of the RIM staff with contempt. While never known as a warm, fuzzy leader, the real-life Balsillie has a fun-loving side and was often pictured in the media sporting a big grin during RIM’s glory days. Howerton’s Balsillie, in contrast, rarely cracks a smile.
While there are many instances where the movie veers from reality, two stand out.
The first is the pivotal meeting with BellSouth in Atlanta in 1997, when RIM scored its first big BlackBerry deal. In the movie, the meeting takes place in New York City and the company is called Bell Atlantic. Balsillie sets up the meeting but gives Lazaridis and crew only one day to build a prototype of the phone, which is far from being ready. It doesn’t matter to Balsillie, who boasts early in the film that all he needs is a prop to get the deal done.
Lazaridis and Fregin are then shown rushing to an electronics store, frantically buying parts and staying up all night to build the prototype. In reality, the staff had weeks to prepare for the crucial meeting.
The movie gets it right when the crucial prototypes are left in the taxi on the way to the meeting. But director Johnson blames the gaffe entirely on Lazaridis, when Balsillie likely shared some of the blame.
At this point, the Lazaridis character – played by actor Jay Baruchel – finally demonstrates some competence as he manages to convince the Bell Atlantic brain trust to take a chance on the BlackBerry device. Balsillie, meanwhile, is clueless about how the phone works, and instead focuses on selling “self-reliance."
"You’re not a tech guy, are you,” quips Bell Atlantic’s John Woodman, played by the veteran Canadian actor Saul Rubinek.
The second big reality stretcher comes later in the film when BlackBerry sales are starting to plummet after the emergence of the Apple iPhone. Balsillie arranges an emergency meeting with wireless carrier AT&T in Atlanta to make a renewed pitch for the BlackBerry.
After Balsillie boards his private jet, the phone rings. It’s NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman urging him to fly to New York immediately for a meeting with league owners about Balsillie's bid to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Balsillie cancels on AT&T and flies to New York where he is told his bid has been rejected. The irate RIM chieftain blasts the NHL owners, declaring that if he can’t buy the Penguins, he'll buy the whole league. He then tries to frantically re-schedule the AT&T meeting, to no avail.
The idea that this all happened in one day is preposterous.
In fairness to Johnson and producer Mark Miller, who co-wrote the script, the movie is billed as a dark comedy with lots of laughs and a few sad moments near the end. In that sense, it gets some of the broad themes right about what led to the downfall of BlackBerry. None is more poignant than a meeting late in the film when AT&T is demanding an answer to the iPhone. Brandishing a BlackBerry, a frustrated Lazaridis moans, “but I built the world’s first track pad.”
The real Jim Balsillie has told reporters that he understands that the film is satire, and he’s OK with that.
As for Lazaridis and Fregin, they have not spoken publicly about the movie. It's safe to say, however, that they’ll be less OK with the satirical treatment of the groundbreaking company they started in Waterloo.